The judicial scandal unfolding in Brooklyn, raising the issue of whether judges paid bribes to political leaders to get on the bench, is really nothing new and goes back as far as political organizations themselves. Tammany Hall perfected the system, selling everything from judgeships to patrolmen’s jobs to subway-construction contracts.
In the early 1970’s, Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a special prosecutor, Maurice Nadjari, who was on to something major with crooked judges but wound up abusing his position. He sure had a lot of political bosses running scared, however; I recall a top official in the Beame administration who was reduced to “walk-and-talks” in the City Hall parking lot for fear his phone had been tapped. His favorite audible sound was “Shhhhhhh!”
During the Jimmy Walker administration, from 1926 to 1932, it was common knowledge that an appointment to the State Supreme Court was worth one year’s salary. Walker’s gang was following the pattern set by another Tammany boss, Richard Croker, who upon his death in 1922 left an estate worth over $5 million.
Croker told a state investigative committee that he decided all city nominations, and that judicial candidates had to pay up to $25,000 in exchange for the party’s endorsement. Another Tammany leader, George Washington Plunkitt, told his biographer: “A Supreme Court Judge in New York County gets $17,500 a year, and he’s expected, when nominated, to help along the good cause with a year’s salary. Why not?”
This cozy relationship began to unravel temporarily when Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a special prosecutor to probe the Magistrate’s Court, which dispensed “justice” mainly on the basis of which district leader held sway.
This led to one of the most famous-and still unsolved-missing-person case in the city’s history: the disappearance of a sitting judge, Joseph Force Crater, in August 1930. The honorable judge had withdrawn nearly $22,000 from his bank account three months before he disappeared. That happened to be one year’s salary for a judge. There were rumors that he was involved in a blackmail scheme, but his bank withdrawal suggests that he bribed someone for his black robes and probably feared exposure.
Crater was last seen leaving a Manhattan bistro on Aug. 6, but his disappearance didn’t make headlines until nearly three weeks later, when friends became concerned and called the police.
Another of Walker’s cronies was Justice James McQuade, who had a part-time job as an owner of the New York Giants baseball team. He benefited mightily when Walker, then serving in the State Senate, passed a bill lifting the ban on Sunday baseball. McQuade often sat in the owner’s box seat with New York luminaries, including the gangster Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series.
F.D.R.’s probe ultimately got rid of Walker, but things got back to normal when the sainted crime-buster Fiorello LaGuardia occupied City Hall. The mobster Frank Costello was overheard on a wiretap assuring a newly elected judge: “When I tell you something’s in the bag, you can be rest assured.”
While the source of the current problem seems to be money laundered though the Brooklyn Democratic machine, ostensibly for a get-out-the-vote operation, it wasn’t always thus. (By the way, nobody has ever explained why you need to get out the vote in a borough that has never had a functioning Republican Party). In the late 1930’s, a Brooklyn district leader, Hymie Schoenstein, was confronted by a candidate for judge who was concerned that the party wasn’t spending any money to “get out the vote.”
The impatient Schoenstein lectured the candidate and made a maritime reference to drive home his point: “Did you ever see the Staten Island ferry pull into the dock with all the chewing-gum wrappers and hot-dog rolls and newspapers in its wake? Well, we have Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the top of our ticket and he is going to pull in everyone in his wake, including you. So stop worrying, F.D.R. is your Staten Island ferry.”
Of course, there are bribes paid in cash and others paid in the currency of delegates to political conventions. No one has ever proven there was a quid pro quo when Earl Warren, the governor of California in 1952, made a deal to deliver the state’s G.O.P. delegates to Dwight Eisenhower, but it sure helped his “credentials” when he was interviewed for his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Then there was the jurist who handed down a harsh sentence to the client of a Tammany lawyer. The barrister stormed into the judge’s chambers and told him that he was supposed to be lenient. “You owe us!” cried the lawyer. “We put you on the bench-you are forgetting your friends!”
When the irate lawyer calmed down, the judge confidently answered: “I owe you and the boys nothing. I paid cash on the barrelhead.”
Terry Golway will return next week.